Just over 41,000 COVID-19 tests have been run in Minnesota to diagnose infections since the pandemic’s beginning. So when Gov. Tim Walz recently said the state needs a testing capacity of 40,000 per week in order to roll back the quarantine in a way that minimizes disease spread, it understandably dimmed hopes.
But this week, encouraging announcements from Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota about a dramatic expansion in laboratory processing capacity means the state’s testing math just got a lot easier. Hitting the 40,000-per-week threshold for testing now appears to be eminently doable.
On Wednesday, Mayo’s Dr. William Morice told an editorial writer that the medical center can currently run 8,000 tests a day. He also estimated Mayo’s capacity to do what’s known as “serological testing” — which determines if someone has had the disease and has antibodies to it — at 10,000 tests a day. A key reason why: Mayo Clinic operates one of the nation’s largest “reference labs,” meaning it already does large-scale testing because it processes specimens from hospitals and clinics across the country.
On Thursday, the U also announced it is “preparing to conduct” 10,000 of each test daily. The U said it’s seeking $20 million from the state to implement testing.
Caution is still in order, however. There are concerns about the tests providing false positives or negatives, as well as logistical challenges to collecting thousands of specimens daily (easier said than done). Chemical reagents needed to run tests and other materials also remain in short supply, though Morice said Mayo can leverage its buying power and can manage around shortages by alternating between different testing machines. Morice also expressed confidence about providing accurate results.
Despite the caveats, the capacity increases should inspire optimism. Minnesota looks well-positioned compared with other states to start moving toward what a number of experts and the Trump administration are recommending. That is, testing on a scale massive enough to determine who has COVID-19 and who’s had it, then make targeted, science-based decisions to gradually ease social distancing.
So far, about 3.3 million COVID-19 diagnostic tests have been run nationally. Experts have a limited window into the disease’s spread. That’s why broad stay-at-home orders are in place. If Minnesota can do enough testing, state officials could detect hot spots and flare-ups. As Walz said this week, medical experts would act like firefighters to put out flames.
It’s still uncertain how the additional capacity will affect Minnesota’s social-distancing policies. The state’s current stay-at-home order runs through May 4. When asked on Thursday how the new information will affect decisions on easing mitigation, Walz’s office didn’t offer much clarity:
“The Governor has identified testing, tracking, and case investigation as key steps to easing the mitigation measures the Administration has taken to keep Minnesotans safe during this pandemic. We need to maximize the resources we have for testing our most vulnerable Minnesotans, and for those fighting the pandemic on the front line,” a statement said.
“We must continue to consider how we best use the testing resources we have. There are other steps we need to take as well, such as building up our surge capacity and critical care supplies [such as protective equipment], but testing is a major component to safely bringing Minnesota out of the Shelter at Home order.”
The governor’s office also said it is developing a plan for large-scale testing in Minnesota. That’s positive news. Walz has repeatedly said that the state must strike a critical balance in lifting COVID-19 restrictions, meaning allowing people to return to work without jeopardizing lives. If Minnesota can do this more swiftly than initially thought, let’s make it happen.